Why do “top-notch rappers” always work with “cheesy rock’n'rollers?” Loving popular rap while hating popular rock must be difficult for those who want to keep it real while keeping it eclectic. That rappers don’t seem to show the same disdain for mainstream pap like Maroon 5, Fall Out Boy and Gwen Stefani that their white hipster fanbase does must stick in the craw of folks who know that the Flaming Lips are so much better than what’s on the radio. Is it that Timbaland just hasn’t heard the Flaming Lips? Does he need a critic’s guiding hand? Or are they just being commercially cagey? And if the final product is good, is it ok to like it? Does that mean you like harlots like Nelly Furtado now? Thank to that accursed Roots feat Patrick Stump devil of a song, Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley must wrestle with the pop guilt/bullshit that any self-righteous indie snob who puts Kanye West in his top ten list must eventually face.
Now, I don’t really know anything about Fall Out Boy, but I understand that I’m expected not to like them. They wear hair gel, and one of the guys in the band dates Ashlee Simpson, so it’s fair to assume that they suck and that their fans are vapid teeny-boppers whose heads would explode if they heard what real rock ‘n’ roll sounds like. What kind of lame middlebrow loser do the Roots take me for?
I don’t know, one that thinks “real rock’n'roll” would make “vapid teeny-boppers” heads’ explode? Yeah, if these kids heard “Johnny B. Goode” it would be Back To The Future all over again. Or did you mean the Hold Steady?
Why do rappers whose work I hold in such high regard have such terrible taste in rock? The answer started to become clear when I gave “Birthday Girl,” the Roots-Patrick Stump song, a courtesy listen and was greatly disturbed to discover that I liked it. It’s catchy; Stump has the right voice for the mellow hook, and the Roots’ estimable rhythm section gives a sharp edge to what otherwise would have been a straightforward mid-tempo rock song.
…Stump et Al. are seen by their hip-hop collaborators, I think, as living samples, picked out of the musical spectrum because their voices have some distinctive quality that the Roots or Kanye West or Dr. Dre want on their track. And, indeed, all three of those artists are known for eclectic record collections–the first person sampled on Kanye’s last album is Elton John–and for perfectionism. Stefani has spoken about recording and rerecording her two lines on “Let Me Blow Your Mind” for hours before Dr. Dre was satisfied, which is illustrative. He was perfecting a Sassy Temptress effect, just as Kanye used Chris Martin to add a little Gripping Melancholy to his track about returning to his hometown of Chicago. Adam Levine has an indisputably fantastic voice for the wistful soul of “Heard ‘Em Say.” In fact, our civilization would be better off if he sang only hooks and covers, though his projects should still be subject to regulatory oversight.
My god, is he grudgingly beginning to accept that how music feels is a little more important to some people than how cool it is? Has the rebirthing begun? Well, not quite.
If any major hip-hop producers are reading this, get in touch; I have lots of great ideas! Songs like Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” Dead Prez’s “Hell Yeah,” and countless Beastie Boys tracks demonstrate that distorted guitar riffs can make for a great hip-hop sound, provided they’re kept sparse and inserted into a song with surgical precision–and, come on, Johnny Greenwood and Jack White can’t even tune up without laying down the most killer sparse-surgical riff you’ve ever heard! On the vocal side, Wayne Coyne and Thom Yorke could contribute ethereally beautiful and ethereally nightmarish hooks, respectively. (The Roots actually do sample Radiohead on Game Theory’s “Atonement,” but it’s not at the front of the mix.)
In these last days of the record business as we know it, established indie-rockers are as good a sales bet as anyone else. So why not get the best rap acts and the best indie acts in the studio together? It might produce some great songs, it could move a lot of units, and–I say this with significantly less condescension than I would have a few weeks ago–it might introduce some vapid middlebrow teeny-boppers to bands they’ll like even more than Fall Out Boy.
A) They’re not doing this for your whiny, self-conscious ass, and B) indie-rock collabos with rappers will not sound like “99 Problems.” They will sound, at best, like this.